China’s TribePlay Goes West for Opportunity, Growth

Chinese developers may not be able play social games on Facebook in their own country (at least not on China’s servers), but that doesn’t mean they can’t find success on the platform.

In the last three months, we’ve seen more Chinese-language games turn up on our weekly rankings charts. Some games — such as Elex’s 開心農場 (Happy Farm) — have been regular fixtures on our monthly top Facebook games lists in the daily active user category. Though growing and able to attract interest from publishers like 6waves Lolapps, it’s unlikely that these games will ever break into the double-digit millions of monthly active users that larger Facebook developers enjoy without Facebook being un-banned in China or without turning game development onto games for Western audiences.

A profile of a smaller Chinese social game developer best illustrates the challenges these studios face in developing for a non-native platform and a completely different culture. Earlier this week, we reviewed BrainJewel, a brain-teaser game for Facebook from a developer called TribePlay. It’s the company’s first-ever Facebook game and their first original intellectual property.

TribePlay is based out of Chengdu, in the Sichuan province — about as far from the game developer-dense Shanghai and Beijing as you can get without winding up in Eastern Europe. Thanks to financial and legal support from the government aimed at beefing up development in Western China, the cost of living in the city is low, as are the barriers to setting up a company and hiring staff.

“Chengdu has become a really rich city and you see more international companies here,” says TribePlay Game Producer Gregor Plath. “You also still have well-educated people in the IT sector here because it’s a [college town].”

Once founded in 2008, however, TribePlay had to find a way to get its games in front of an audience. Plath explains that because of licensing restrictions, it’s very hard for a small game developer to afford publishing costs on Chinese social game networks like Tencent and RenRen.

“You always need a partner or to apply for a special license and it’s almost impossible if you’re not a big company or don’t have a partner,” Plath says. “We’re trying to get in touch with local companies here to find a partner where there’s a chance to do [an exchange], like where they publish our game in China and we take one of their games to publish in Europe or something.”

By targeting game development in Europe and now Latin America and the United States, TribePlay was able to grow its business in the past three years from three employees to an international mix of 35 that includes German, Polish, French and Dutch — and they’re still hiring. Previously, the developer worked only with branded IP, the biggest of which being Eccky, a child-oriented pet sim that Plath says did very well on Dutch social network Hyves at 350,000 registered users. With BrainJewel and future games on Facebook, TribePlay hopes to broaden its international audience and potentially its platform reach onto mobile devices as well.

“We are planning to launch our second game pretty soon,” Plath says. “It’s really complicated on Facebook [to succeed] with just one game. With cross-promotion, it’s easier to grow. So we’re hopefully going to launch our second game in October. We also want to get BrainJewel out on mobile soon, or maybe on iPad.”

TribePlay is also localizing BrainJewel in several emerging language categories on Facebook — including Portuguese.

“Our biggest market seems to be in Brazil,” Plath explains. “We are looking at [launching games on] Orkut. Brazilians seem to be crazy about brain games. We’re also going to do Indonesia, which is also an emerging market on Facebook. [It seems] that people who used to use Facebook have stopped using it, but we’re getting new users in from these other countries.”

BrainJewel launched on Facebook earlier this month. Read our review for more details.